Monthly Archives: January 2018

Personal History

Exposition is, by nature, a weird thing. In fiction, it is effectively the author, whether through prose, dialogue, or (in video games) incidental environmental encounters telling you stuff about The World you’re visiting. It could be something as mundane as Ted and Jack used to be dating but now Jack’s into Sheila and that’s when Ted decided to quit his job or something as subtly major as “Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. [need better example]” You need exposition so the audience know what’s going on, but when done poorly it can feel like infodump, that is a whole lotta information dumped at once, usually just to keep the audience in the loop. It can be clunky and heavy handed, transparent in its purpose to the point where the immersion in the narrative is disturbed. It’s especially an issue in fanatical stories where a world’s gotta be established whole cloth (though stories set in the real world do sometimes stumble on the issue).

But sometimes it works.

Let’s talk Star Wars, because I want to. After the opening crawl (which, holy crap, is a magnificent narrative device in its own right that deserves its own essay), we’re told really freaking little about this world until Luke sits down with Ben — a solid quarter of the way into the movie. And so comes the exposition. Leia reminds Ben that he served her father in the Clone Wars. Ben tells Luke about his father. For a thousand years, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace in the galaxy.  But it works. Why? We wanna know what’s going on! After this big space battle we’ve been following a couple droids around and met this kid named Luke. Luke wants to get off this nowhere planet and be a part of something bigger, and we wanna tag along on that journey.

So there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game I’ve only been able to put down because my girlfriend really wants to know what happens next and I’m waiting until we hang out to progress. One reason I love it so is that it uses one of my favorite settings: it’s post-apocalypse, but it’s been so long since that a new society has developed and there’s a mystery about what came before (see also: Mega Man Legends and The Chrysalids). The setting and its history, though, is wonderfully tied into the game’s narrative. In the game I’m Aloy, an Outcast from a matriarchal tribe who doesn’t know who’s her mother. My quest to discover where I come from reveals a connection between me and the Metal World of the Ancients (that is, the ruins of 2066) and starts to raise more questions than answers.

Over the course of the game I uncover more of what caused the apocalypse, and Aloy’s link to it all. There is a lot of expository information thrown around, both through the narrative itself and old records Aloy finds and can read or listen to. But it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming barrage of useless information. For starters, we’re more than halfway into the game when we start getting this and we’ve spent hours surrounded by these mysterious ruins and machines. At this point, we’re ready for some answers. And, it’s all related to Aloy. I’m connected to this history, and that connection might just help me figure out who I am. Assuming you’re invested in her (and why wouldn’t you be, Aloy’s great), you wanna know who you are. The exposition is important because it serves as a narrative catharsis to the character’s arc. In other words, the answers are the answer.

The worst effect of the story is for the recipient to not care. When people monologue on about the geopolitical state of whatever, it’s easy to zone out. But when it’s personal, when the history of an apocalypse is relevant to your character, then it’s easier to care. And it helps when the world’s pretty dope.

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The Return of The Boyband

One hundred and forty-four essays (not rants) ago I wrote about the then-upcoming Final Fantasy XV and how it was frustrating to see an entirely male party, albeit one justified by a space to allow the exploration of bromances.

Anyway, the game came out and all that, and I stopped paying attention to much (any) of the press. Then it went on sale on Amazon for $20 and, after being convinced by my girlfriend (“You’ve been waiting eleven years, just buy the game”) who informed me it was $16.45 in 2006, adjusted for inflation, I bought the darn game. And have subsequently played it.

And boy howdy it is odd.

A ten year development cycle is never a good sign for a game, and Final Fantasy XV (née Final Fantasy Versus XIII) shows a lot of growing pains. Its mechanics are a little wonky, with its open world showing nowhere near the contemporary finesse of games like Horizon Zero Dawn or Metal Gear Solid V. Even Mass Effect Andromeda for all its flaws made exploration fun; in FFXV, it’s a bit of a commute. Combat is cool, although it feels like it’s hampering itself by not letting you make more changes to your gear on the fly. It’s fun enough, if a bit of a mechanical mess.

But the story is where the game is at its most, both for better and worse. You play as protagonist Prince Noctis (Emo Bro) who is on a road trip to meet his betrothed, the Oracle Luna, with his retinue/bros consisting of Gladiolus (Muscle Bro), Ignis (Nerd Bro), and Prompto (Selfie Bro). We’re from the capital city of Lucis, Insomnia (this game is not subtle). Anyway, a cold war goes hot, Insomnia falls, the king dies (so Noctis is king now?) and we gotta find ancient magicky Royal Arms weapons to take back the throne.

Or something.

Truth be told, the narrative is a bit of a convoluted mess. I mean, I know what’s going on, insofar as I just explained, but the political lines aren’t really drawn all to well and I’m not quite sure how the Royal Arms are gonna help me get my kingdom back and avenge my father and all that. Also I think we’re still going to pick up Luna? But right now Luna’s going around waking up these gods and I’m also going to the gods to get their powers? I think?

In some ways it feels like there are ten years’ worth of ideas stuck to a cork board in this game, and they don’t always mesh too wonderfully. I’m not saying this game needed another year of development, more its connective tissue needed to be worked out a bit more, keep the player placed in the story.

Because there’s a lot of good! The combat system is wonky but when it works it is awesome to be warping around, swapping from a sword to a spear by materializing the new weapon out of mid air, and plunging into a giant frog (then warping across the field to stab a goblin). Exploring the world isn’t always smooth, but it’s a really cool world, with a delightful merging of contemporary tech/culture (smart phones, dope cities, route 66 style rest stops and garages, machine guns, etc) with some serious high fantasy (magic swords, normal swords, deamons that only come out at night, gods, magic meteors, etc). It’s weird, it’s fun, but we don’t really have enough moments to really get the feel and explore this world. Like, I’m told that in Lestallum it is the women who do the work, but outside of seeing female NPCs in overalls, nothing really happens with it.

But. The bromance. I can go fishing while exploring, and afterwards Muscle Bro sets up camp, Nerd Bro cooks, and we look at the pictures Selfie Bro took during the day (and I choose which ones to save). Along the way they talk crap about all sorts of things, be it Nerd Bro’s glasses or Selfie Bro asking what I want him to take pictures of. Nerd Bro and I (Emo Bro) had a bonding moment over cooking once, and Muscle Bro told me that he’s sworn to protect my life and that means that he’s gonna call me on my bullshit. Sure, I’m disappointed that the main female characters thus far are all NPCs and are basically just pure angel lady, Muscle Bro’s sister, and eye candy mechanic; but I am actually enjoying my retinue/bros (though Emo Bro is pretty boring thus far).

I’m told the game is about to get even weirder soon, with the open world being abandoned for something more traditionally linear involving a train, and in all honesty, I can’t wait to see where it goes. It’s nowhere near as compelling as, say Final Fantasy XIII or VIII, but it’s a lotta (weird) fun.

This is a game where an actual battle command is to have Selfie Bro snap a picture. And for some reason, having this dude take a picture while I’m fighting for my life against a massive monster feels just right for this game.

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